The truth behind Harper’s go-to-work-sick plan


We knew this was coming: the government tabled a proposal, last week, that would see our sick leave slashed to just 5 days per year. And forget about banking those (in the unlikely event that you wouldn’t use all of them!).

“Instead of promoting a healthy workplace, the government is once again showing its disdain for its workers and for public services in general,” said PSAC National President Robyn Benson.

Strictly looking at this proposal from a policy perspective, we can see that it oozes of ideology over informed decision-making.

For one, as we keep reiterating, public servants’ use of sick leave is in line with the private sector. The parliamentary budget office recently reported that we use an average of 11.52 sick days per year; our counterparts in the private sector use an average of 11.3 sick days per year.

Paid sick leave is also incredibly important from a public health perspective. For proof, we needn’t look much further than the 2009 H1N1 scare. Xenia Scheil-Adlung and Lydia Sandner, of the World Health Organization, pointed to the following alarming statistics in their 2010 background paper on paid sick leave.

“In 2009, when the economic crisis and the H1N1 pandemic occurred simultaneously, an alarming number of employees without the possibility of taking paid sick leave days attended work while being sick. This allowed H1N1 to spread into the workplace causing infections of some 7 million co-workers in the USA alone. […] Fears of losing one’s job, restructuring, downsizing, and financial worries were identified as reasons for the dangerous and costly presence of the sick at work.”

The same report points out that working while sick leads to reduced productivity: “up to three times higher than loss of productivity due to sickness-related absence”.

A likely outcome of cutting sick days is a high degree of presenteeism: coming to work while sick. Other factors that have been found to lead to presenteeism include heavier workload and concerns about job security related to downsizing and restructuring; situations that are all-too common in this era of public sector job cuts.

At the end of the day, even guilt about missing work contributes to presenteeism. Even when employees have access to paid sick days, 28% of them still show up for work. Without sick days, that number spikes to 48%.

Another study, conducted just last year by University of Pittsburgh researchers, found that the 11.54% of influenza transmission was attributable to the workplace. Presenteeism accounted for 72% of the virus’ spread.

In that study, having access to paid sick days helped decrease the rate of transmission by 5.86% (bear in mind, Americans who have paid sick days don’t have many of them to begin with!). When researchers added an additional day or two, termed “flu days”, more employees stayed home. The rate of transmission decreased by 25.33% in workplaces given one flu day; 39.22% in workplaces given two days.

Over and above providing viruses with a larger breeding ground, presenteeism presents a very real life-and-death risk for individuals who have weakened immune systems, including pregnant women who risk more serious health problems to their unborn baby.

But you don’t need an impaired immune system to suffer the consequences of presenteeism.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in the US also found that employees who have access to sick leave are 28% less likely to be injured in the workplace.

“Expanding sick leave programs might help businesses reduce the incidence of nonfatal occupational injuries,” the study concluded.

So, let’s just say that there’s a lot of evidence out there against Harper’s “go-to-work sick plan”. But then again, the Harper government’s never been one to be swayed by “facts” and “science”.

Sick leave is incredibly important. Let’s show our bargaining team some solidarity!